No matter where you are on the open sea — or how alone you think you may be — there's a good chance you've been spotted by an albatross. These iconic birds patrol massive stretches of the ocean, gliding effortlessly on wings that span as wide as 11 feet.
They're also known to keep a sharp eye out for fishing boats, having learned that those vessels are likely to use squid and small fish as bait — just the kind of buffet an albatross likes to dive into.
The trouble is, those boats drag their bait on hook-laden lines that stretch as far as 60 miles behind them, according to CBC News. As a result, albatrosses, along with countless other marine animals, are often ensnared and killed. The bird's plummeting population — 17 of 22 species are currently threatened with extinction — bears grim testament to the ravages of illegal trawling.
And they're not the only victims. Because of large-scale and often illegal operations, overfishing is turning enormous swaths of ocean into dead zones, where marine animals can't replenish themselves faster than they're being caught.
In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that a third of the world's assessed fisheries are currently pushed beyond their biological limits.
But how do you patrol oceans so vast they cover more than 70 percent of our planet? Especially since boats use an honor system, reporting their whereabouts to authorities through an automated identification system known as AIS. As you might imagine, illegal trawlers aren't keen on reporting their location.
"If any boats cuts off its AIS, nobody knows where the boat is," Henri Weimerskirch, a marine ornithologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, tells Smithsonian magazine.
In fact, the magazine reports that nearly 40 percent of marine traffic doesn't bother to report a location at all.
So Weimerskirch and his colleagues figured they would ask for help from someone who's been surveilling the sea for millennia.
This was a job for the albatross brigade.
For their study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team recruited 169 of the high-flying sea birds. Outfitted with portable data logging devices, trackers and miniature radars, the albatrosses were unleashed on the southern Indian Ocean, a huge area stretching from South Africa to New Zealand.
And the new recruits immediately set about doing what they do best: zero in on fishing boats.
"We found high proportions of nondeclared fishing vessels operating in international waters, as well as in some remote national seas," the authors note in the study.
The idea is to get even more spy birds in the air over the next few years.
Being able to freely soar across huge distances, the birds have a knack for spying on areas that ships, aircraft and even some satellites can't penetrate. They're also an incredibly cheap — and highly motivated — crew.
While patrolling all that ocean, the albatrosses may even help scientists gather information on on its overall health, as well as the status of conservation efforts. It's all part of what scientists are dubbing the Ocean Sentinel program — a system that would use hundreds of ocean animals as spies relaying real-time data to authorities who can intercept illegal operators in real time.
"This is a really clever method for facilitating law enforcement," Melinda Conners, a biologist at Stony Brook University who wasn't involved in the study, tells Smithsonian magazine. "There's no boat or plane that can match the capability of an albatross to cover these vast oceanic regions."
And, of course, along the way, albatrosses may even find a way to save themselves. As Weimerskirch notes in an interview with CNN, the program will not only crack down on the scourge that is illegal fishing — but also "improve the knowledge of the life history of albatrosses, and ultimately their conservation."